The Exclusive Church

I’d like you to read this blog post from Thom Shultz, Is It Wrong for Christians to Attend Multiple Churches?

When I moved town a few years ago I knew that realistically I would have to stop worshipping regularly at my current church. I found a wonderful new church in my new town and I don’t have any regrets about settling there and becoming a member.

However, at the transition time I asked my then-Pastor about keeping my ties to the old church, and I was told it wasn’t possible to be a member of both. I remember thinking it was a shame, and it didn’t make total sense to me, but I was younger and less experienced then, and I accepted that this was the way it worked. There had to be some sound theological reason why I could only ‘belong’ to one church.

Thom’s blog has reminded me of that time, and has awakened something. I don’t know what to call it – resentment is too strong a word but is the one that comes most easily to mind. Maybe disappointment is a more appropriate term.

As a Christian, I want to feel that my church is the global church, that every other Christian is my brother or sister in Christ, and as soon as church membership becomes exclusive, I feel that I’m actually becoming a member of a local club, an insular organisation more interested in promoting its own ministries (which are probably laudable in their own right) than it is in promoting the unity of the Body of Christ.

When I visit different churches, I often find that the differences of style, and even the small differences of creed, are invigorating, thought-provoking and faith-affirming. There are several churches that have had profound effects on my spiritual growth, and I feel that I am a part of each of them, and they are each a part of me.

Churches don’t need to compete with each other – we have competition enough from the secular world and from more fashionable religions. A church that is filled with the spirit and strength of Christ doesn’t need to feel threatened by anything or anyone. Let God’s will be done in love, diversity and universal brotherhood.

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

Psalm 133

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

Mark 9:38-41

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:3-6

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

John 17:20-26

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I Believe..?

Every so often a line will hit you hard, and you’ll never forget it. Maybe from a film, book or song, or maybe in everyday conversation. Of course there’s quite a few memorable lines in the Bible.

There were a few lines that struck me back in my early school days. There was “go to the ant, thou sluggard,” (Proverbs 6:6) for no particular reason, except it had a pleasing rhythm when I spoke or thought it. Then there was “the plank in your own eye,” and the rest of that small section of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 7:1-5) that I had to memorise and recite in a morning assembly, aged 9 or 10. But the most memorable Bible quotation in my entire life is found at the end of Mark 5:9, and it has to be the King James Version:

My name is Legion: for we are many.

I didn’t have any understanding of the context – I think I still have a lot to learn from the story of the healing of the demon-possessed man – but I was just mesmerised by the weirdness of the line. It was the creepiest thing I’d ever heard. And because of the way my neural pathways were being laid down at that time, it probably still is! I think I got the idea that the Bible was an exciting book just from the knowledge and remembrance of those eight words. And though I drifted far from Jesus over the years that followed, that line never left me, and never lost its power to enthral me.

More recently, last year to be rather imprecise, another verse got under my skin in a similar way. And as I write I am only just realising that it is very similar because of the paradox it encapsulates. It’s Mark 9:24…

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

Is it presumptuous of me to suggest that if you ask any Christian “Do you believe in God?” then there’s a very high probability that they’ll answer “Yes”?

But if I was ever asked that question, even though I’ve surrendered my life to Christ, I wouldn’t want to say “Yes”!

Why?

Because to “believe” something, or to “believe in” something, there has to be an element of doubt – or room for doubt. I believe it’s going to rain tomorrow, but it might not. I believe in my ability to hit a tennis ball over a net, but I might fail. Whenever I hear someone say “I believe in God,” I can’t help hearing the unspoken continuation, “…but I could be wrong.

I believed in God for as long as I can remember. There were times when that belief was more important and times when it drifted out of my consciousness. When it was important, I’d seek answers to the meaning of life and what was the exact nature of God. I looked at various religions, they all had their pros and cons. None fully met my requirements, or fitted completely with whatever I might call my world view. So I defined myself as “spiritual but not religious” and left it at that.

During a difficult time in my life, in late 2008, I was invited to a church conference which ignited a passion in me. Over the course of several weeks I found myself drawn to Christ, and on 14 December I accepted Him as my personal Saviour.

The moment before I made that commitment I believed in God, and I believed in His Son Jesus. Moments afterwards, “believe” became the wrong word.

God touched me in a physical way, He shook my body, moving from my head down to my feet, in a way I can’t describe and which I’ve never experienced before or since. It was a completely unexpected manifestation, although I’ve since heard that other people have felt His presence in a similar way.

Because of what I’ve experienced, I no longer “believe” in God, I “know” Him in a personal way.

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. (Job 19:25)

Is the distinction important? Is it just semantics? It’s difficult to say. On a personal level, yes it feels very important to me. Knowing the reality of God makes it much easier to have faith at those times when He feels far away from me. But what about those Christians who haven’t had such a tangible confirmation? I can’t help thinking about Jesus’ words to Thomas:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Maybe God touched me because it’s what I needed. Maybe if He hasn’t touched you, the faith He’s given you is strong enough without further intervention. Whether it’s connected to your personality, or your life story, or because of His plans for you, I don’t know. Maybe He will touch you some time in the future when you need it most.

I’m also aware that certainty brings danger as well as comfort. There’s a danger of certainty leading to arrogance. There’s a danger that that I could lack patience or understanding when I’m talking to people who still have doubts.

And finally, my certainty about the existence of God is not going to answer the other questions that naturally arise in my journey through life. There is so much for me to learn about God’s nature, about His plan for me and for those who are close to me. There is so much for me to understand about everyday issues, and my personal trials and my weaknesses. There are more questions than will ever be answered in my lifetime, but I’ll keep learning all I can while I have breath, and then look forward to learning the rest when I find my way home to my Heavenly Father.